The next day, Anaxis met Mills on the way to lessons.
“Hey, buddy,” Mills said. “Brought you something.” He held out a breakfast bar, which Anaxis took and shoved in his mouth.
“Thanks,” Anaxis said. “Hey, how come your dad doesn’t make you go to the training circle?”
“He doesn’t care about it, I guess. Doesn’t care about anything. Sometimes I wish he did. Most of the time, really.”
“He’s still sad about your mom, huh?”
“Guess so,” Mills said. “Anyways, I made those bars. How was it?”
“Oh, good,” Anaxis answered. “You’re a great cook.”
“Thanks,” Mills said. “So you had to train last night, huh?”
“Yeah,” Anaxis said. “It was a crap fest.”
“Sorry, buddy. At least the Hunt will be over soon, and we can forget about it for another year.”
“At least,” Anaxis said. “Let’s hurry up so we get there before everyone. I want to talk to Xala about my lens.”
“Okay,” Mills said. “Race you?”
Anaxis took off running. “Catch me if you can!”
The two arrived out of breath at the hut where Xala Sy taught the children of the village. They were able to make it there before anyone else, which meant there wouldn’t be any bullying until after lessons were over.
Entering into the long, hide-covered hut, they found Xala deep in a book. They startled her when they threw their bags onto their desks.
“Who’s that?” Xala gasped, dropping her book onto the floor. “Oh! Mills and Anaxis. You two scared me half to death.”
“Sorry, Xala,” Anaxis said. He stooped down to pick up the book Xala had dropped. “I wanted to come early to talk to you about my lens.”
“How’s it coming along?” the old woman asked, taking off her reading glasses.
“I think it’s ready to go,” Anaxis said. “I’d like to polish it a little better. The shearstone has done a pretty good job, but it’s not quite perfect yet. Not like your glasses.”
“I used a shalrit sponge, from the lake,” Xala said. “It’ll add that extra smoothness you’re looking for.”
“Perfect,” said Anaxis. He looked at the cover of the book he had picked up. “What are you reading?”
“Stories From the Other Side,” Xala said. “It’s about the Gnirean.”
“Spooky,” said Anaxis. “Is it any good?”
“If it’s true,” Xala said. “Even if it’s not, actually. Fascinating.”
“What’s it say about them?” Mills asked. “Just about how they drink blood and everything?”
“Actually, it gives a wholly different impression,” Xala said. “The book makes the audacious claim that the Gnirean are not a separate species from our own.”
“Whoa, Xala,” Anaxis said. “You’re liable to get in trouble talking like that in Talx.”
“I know,” Xala said. “I wouldn’t tell it to anyone I didn’t trust. But I trust the two of you.”
“But they do drink the blood of native Valerites, don’t they?” asked Mills.
“The book says otherwise,” said Xala. “Of course, I have no idea if it’s true or not. But the stories told about the people to the east have always seemed like myths to me. And myths hold functions in any society. I’m curious as to why the Gnirean have been so vilified throughout the history of our people.”
“Where’d you get the book?” Mills asked.
“From a friend in Crit, who got it from another friend in Poltir,” answered Xala.
“Why would they say such horrible things about the Gnirean if they weren’t true?” asked Mills.
“I’m only halfway through the book, but, apparently, our people used to live in harmony a long time ago. Something happened that ended that harmony, and ended contact between us. Very mysterious stuff.”
“I hear they live in great cities, in multi-storied houses they build with incredible machines,” said Mills. “Machines powered by the toil of slaves and children.”
“Yes, that is a common story told around campfires,” said Xala. “If I weren’t so old, I tell you, I’d strike out to the east myself, to try and find one of their mythical cities. To learn the truth.”
“You’d have to cross the Stretch,” said Anaxis. “Which no one ever has.”
“If they have, they never came back,” said Xala. “Maybe one of you two will make the journey some day?”
“I wish,” said Anaxis. “I fear we’ll both die out here in the desert, though. Like all our ancestors.”
“Perhaps,” Xala said. “But don’t stop dreaming. Our people won’t have to live like this forever. We’ll reclaim our mastery of nature, the ways we knew in the oldest stories. Why, this very Hunt we have your ingenious lens to steer the cannal, don’t we, Anaxis?”
“I hope it works,” Anaxis said. “Because I stink at hunting.”
“So did I, when I was your age,” Xala said. “And look at me now!”
“Well, there can only be one teacher in the village,” Anaxis said. “And Mills is better with people, so either I create a new role for myself, or I’m the village loony.”
“I’ll have you know I’m good friends with the village loony,” Xala said. “Mim and I have steep every afternoon.”
“You’ll have steep with me when I’m the village loony, won’t you, Mills?” Anaxis asked.
“Of course I will,” said Mills. “Oh, crap. Here’s trouble.”
Balta and two friends entered the hut and shot disparaging looks at Xala and her two best students.
“Don’t worry,” Xala said. “You’re safe with me. In this hut, at least, the ones with the brains are in charge. Okay?”
“Sure,” Mills said, slipping away to his seat.
“He’s so scared of them,” Anaxis said to Xala.
“He lacks your courage,” said Xala. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”
“Can I borrow your book, when you’re done?” Anaxis asked.
“I’m afraid not, Anaxis,” Xala said. “If you were found with it, we’d both be in a lot of trouble. But I’ll keep telling you all about it, how’s that?”
“Sounds good, Xala.”
“Go ahead and take your seat. We don’t want them having any extra fuel for jealousy.”
“Understood,” Anaxis said. He took his seat next to Mills as the rest of the students filed in.